Teacher Feature: Teacher of the Year finalist elevates refugee, immigrant students

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Mandy Manning works to make her students feel welcome in the United States - WILSON CRISCIONE PHOTO
  • Wilson Criscione photo
  • Mandy Manning works to make her students feel welcome in the United States

Mandy Manning, a teacher of refugees and immigrant students at Ferris High School, knows what she would say to President Donald Trump if she ends up winning National Teacher of the Year.

"I would invite him to visit my classroom," Manning says. "And I would share stories of how beautiful and amazing and wonderful my students and their families are."

Manning, already the 2018 Washington Teacher of the Year, is one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year, with the winner traditionally visiting the White House for a ceremony in the spring.

Yet what motivates Manning isn't as much the recognition for her job. For her, it's an opportunity to tell her students' stories. That's why she pursued the nomination for Teacher of the Year.

"Considering some of the difficulties we're seeing in our nation right now around refugees and immigrants, and being willing to experience that which is outside of your understanding," Manning says, "I thought this would be an opportunity to share my students' voices."

Manning is a teacher at the English Language Development Newcomer Center at Ferris High School. It's the first class that many refugees and immigrants take when they arrive in the United States, and most come to class speaking little English. It's the only class of its kind at the high school level in Spokane.

She taught at Lewis and Clark High School, though she wasn't involved in English language development then. When the job opened up at Ferris, she jumped on it.

"I remember thinking, oh my gosh, that would be such an amazing place to work," Manning says. "It would be a great opportunity to teach but it would also be such an amazing opportunity to learn."

In her seventh year at the Newcomer Center, she's found out she was right. She works with students from all over the world, helping them get comfortable in their new environment and new school. Each student brings with them a unique experience, and a unique culture, she says.

"There are so many great things about it. I can't even — I could go on all day. It's such a great experience," Manning says.

The students she works with have to adjust to a new culture, a new school, and a new life. In school, she says, the students often need to learn how to collaborate and learn together. That's why students are always working together in Manning's classroom. 

And the collaboration, as Manning sees it, should extend to the home. Manning says in some cultures, school is school, and home is home — the two rarely interact. Manning tries to change that.

"Here, particularly with me, I have this huge expectation that families are a part of the learning process and we are a team, so it's not just up to me and not just up to the parents. It's up to us together to meet the educational and social needs of the kids," she says.

In the past year and a half, starting with the 2016 election cycle, Manning says she's noticed that students feel unwelcome after anti-refugee or anti-immigrant rhetoric at the national level.

"There have been several times in the past year and a few months when students have come in ashen, wondering when they were going to be asked to leave, how long they had, or if they were really welcome, because there's a lot of messaging out there that they're not," she says.

When the news broke last week that President Trump didn't want immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador or African countries, and that he called those "shithole" countries, Manning thought of her students. Some of her students are from those countries.

"There's beauty in every one of those countries," Manning says. "Those kids came from those countries, so there has to be good. Because those kids are beautiful and amazing, and the families are beautiful and amazing."

That's part of the reason she thinks she's been recognized for her teaching efforts. At this time in the nation's politics, she says, it's important and relevant that immigrant and refugee students feel safe. It's why she and the rest of the English Language Development department at Ferris tell students that they're welcome and safe.

"We tell them we love them and there's no way anybody's going to make them leave because they have the support of their community," Manning says. "And we will do everything we can to protect them and ensure they're safe here with us."